Recalls are rampant. As a shop owner, I get daily email updates about recalls and they are starting to fill up my inbox. For many of us, purchasing a car is one of the most expensive decisions we will make in our entire lives—shouldn't it be worth it?
At least we know that under federal law, auto dealers cannot sell vehicles that have been recalled, but did you know that this restriction does not extend to rental cars? Whenever you rent a car, you could be driving around in one that has been recalled.
A recall is a serious thing—they are issued when there is a problem that compromises the safety of a vehicle's occupants. We are not talking about broken radios or chipping paint. We are talking about defects that can cause vehicle fires, compromised airbags, sticking gas pedals, and breaking wheels; things that, if not fixed, can seriously injure and even kill someone.
Last week, U.S. Senator Charles Shumer proposed the Safe Rental Car Act, which would make it illegal for rental car companies to rent out recalled cars. The bill was inspired by the 2004 deaths of two young sisters who rented a Chrysler PT Cruiser one month after Enterprise had received a recall notice about potential under hood engine fires that could result from a power steering fluid leak.
How did the women die? After their vehicle caught fire and hit an oncoming truck.
One day after Shumer proposed the bill, three major car rental agencies (Enterprise, Hertz, and Avis) sent a joint letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) questioning the results of the NHTSA survey that helped lead to the bill, saying the data was out of date.
In the survey, it was found that, after ninety days, Enterprise had fixed an average of 65 percent of their fleet subject to recall. Avis/Budget had only fixed 53 percent of the vehicles in that same ninety-day period. At Hertz, only 34 percent of the recalled cars had been fixed within ninety days of the recall.
In the 2008 court case concerning the two young women who were killed in a recalled rental car, Enterprise executives testified that there was no company-wide policy requiring recalled cars to be grounded until they were fixed. According to Mark Matias, a former Enterprise area manager, "When demand called, we rented out recalled vehicles, it happened, I won't lie. ... If all you have are recalled vehicles on the lot, you rent them out. It was a given. The whole company did it. Enterprise's corporate offices look the other way regarding this fact."
Before the court case went to trial, Enterprise argued that the older daughter, Raechel, who was driving, was negligent. They also argued that Raechel killed herself and her younger sister by suggesting that Raechel was suicidal or on drugs. Enterprise offered the girls' parents a $3 million settlement if they would not speak publicly about the case; the parents turned it down. It wasn't until two weeks before the trial that Enterprise admitted negligence and a jury awarded the family $15 million.
Now, according to Enterprise spokesperson, Laura Bryant, virtually all cars under recall are grounded until they are fixed. She suggests they have learned their lesson, saying, “the safety of our customers is our top priority and the most fundamental aspect of our commitment to do business responsibly.”
Maybe she is right. Maybe in the years since that terrible accident, rental car agencies have implemented policies requiring all rental cars subject to recall be fixed before they can be rented out. Granted, the survey only covered ten General Motors and Chrysler recalls launched by NHTSA between June 2006 and July 2010. Maybe repairs on recalls are under reported.
But how do we really know that rental agencies have modified their policies? After all, renting cars is a lucrative business where grounding vehicles could affect the bottom line. Are we really safe when rental companies like Enterprise say that they assess safety recalls on a case-by-case basis? Do you really want someone else, no matter who they are, to pick and choose what recalls should be honored and what vehicles should be fixed? After all, all recalls, by their very definition, are serious.
No one—no company, no agency—should gamble with others’ lives.